There’s no phone reception.
Even the radio is breaking. “...animals found dismembered— …is the fourth case this mo— …issued a statement warning— …and this week’ lottery numbers a–…” I grip the steering wheel and bang my head on it, biting my lip in frustration as my windscreen wipers work at full speed against the raindrops. Every cell of my body wants to scream, but my foster staffy, Pretzel, is already anxious: it’s the worst storm in thirty years, it is the worst storm of both of our lives, with the Met Office advising against travel, and issuing a red warning for the area. Of course people like me, hard stretched to pay their rent, would not decide to miss a day at work and get on the wrong side of their bosses because “it’s windy out there”. Now, I think that sixty-five pounds might have cost me too much, as I sit in my stationary vehicle, halfway home. Prime time for a breakdown. One last try; I turn the key again and put my foot all the way down to the floor. The engine doesn’t start. I try again and again, and again and hit the wheel with both fists, spitting a word my mum would not want to hear from my mouth. Pretzel whimpers and I take a deep breath and scratch his head. I shouldn’t have bought the cheapest car on the market.
‘We’re stuck here, boy.’ I sigh. Gritting my teeth, I take my eyes off the ominous warning signs in the rearview mirror and as I turn off the headlights our surroundings are consumed by the suffocating darkness. I hate this. Putting a leash on Pretzel, I brace myself for the elements. The cold wind slaps the rain in my face as soon as I get out, and my clothes soak through entirely in seconds, down to my underwear and my socks in the torrential downpour, and I worry my phone might not survive serving me as a torch tonight in the pitch dark where all I can see is its patch of light on the road. The cold bites into me, as I walk deafened to my surroundings by the sounds of the rain, the wind and thunder, and blinded by lightning. I wish I was closer to home.
Despite how the cold wind and rain make me chill to the bone, it is the lightning that disturbs me most: that split second when everything lights up in the night, before the fall of complete darkness that reveals what hides away in the night. In the brief moment of light smuggled into the night and deep in the dark woods, I try to be blind to it.
I keep my eyes on the road, with utmost discipline, on the little patch lit by my cellphone’s light. Wet concrete and my shoes are all that I bare to see. I am not one who wants to look into the darkness, and not one who wants to shine a light on what’s lurking in the shadows: the secrets of the night should stay covered in black and away from me, out of mind. Some say I’m a coward, and having made the irreversible mistake of watching horror movies under some peer pressure, I have to agree. My overly vivid imagination is not my friend — it’s also not under my control. Those pictures… No. I can’t think of that now, it’s not a good time. My heartrate is already starting to skyrocket, and with the adrenaline kicking in, my body just wants to run. Happy thoughts, I growl in my head and wrap Pretzel’s soaked leash tightly around my hand, forcing myself to walk at a steady pace. If I run, I will panic. It can get worse than it already is, I must keep it together.
I keep my eyes on my shoes with such concentration, as I am trying not to see the dead deer on the roadside, its empty eye and the pink of the flesh and the white of the bone where its jaw broke, I nearly walk past the driveway by it. I only notice, because Pretzel stops to sniff it, pulling me close enough for a motion detecting light to come on, illuminating the entrance, the tragic roadkill and the name of the house. Behind the gate, the big house stands dark and blurry through the curtain of rain and fog, but I can see the lights filter from its windows. I hate everything about this, and my stomach squeezes with the sickening mix of fear and hope. I open the gate and walk up the drive, past the three parked cars, all new-looking Range Rovers.
I don’t expect anybody to open the door when I knock; deep down I even hope that they won’t, after all, it’s late, and I’d rather hide under the covers and call 911 if I heard a knock on my door at night. But whoever lives here is not me. Warm light pours out into the cold dark night and into my face accompanied with the faint scent of bleach as the door opens, and my knees buckle underneath me in a flood of relief. In the doorway, there’s a lean young boy, quite pretty, with the most princely golden curls I have ever seen, wearing a cosy woolly jumper I instantly envy.
‘Can I help you?’ he asks easily in a welcoming tone, his rosy lips curling upwards into a charming smile.
‘I hope so,’ I say nervously and give him an awkward smile in return as I am standing soaking wet in the rain on his porch with Pretzel.
‘My car broke down and I can’t get reception. I was wondering if I can make a call from your house to get help… please?’
‘Sure, come on in.’ His smile widens as he steps back and invites us in.
‘Is that alright..? Go ask your parents first, I can wait.’
He laughs at me.
‘I’m eighteen. Besides, my parents aren’t home tonight.’ He grins, and at once I feel incredibly old, ten years his senior.
‘Oh right. Sorry about the muddy paws… I’m Lola, by the way. And this good boy is Pretzel…’ I say as we step inside, and as I glance at my dog I realise in horror he is carrying the leg of the dead deer. Our host laughs it off, praising him for bringing a gift.
‘He’s adorable. I was never allowed to have dogs.’ He squats down to pet him, and I notice his hands are covered in cuts and bruises.
‘How did you hurt yourself like that?’
'Oh, that? Gardening.’ He smiles. ‘I’m turning one of our bathrooms into a jungle. Wanna have a look whilst I grab the phone? Just don't let your dog dig anything up! I’ve been working on it all day.’
He leads me into the house and towards a bathroom. The smell of bleach is stronger here, and, looking at the huge bleached out white stains on the carpet in the passage I'm not surprised: in places there is more white present than the original colour.
‘Did carpet cleaning go wrong..?’
‘Can you tell?’ He laughs. ‘I was hoping to get away with it.’
‘There is no chance you can get away with this.’
He looks back over his shoulder.
‘That’s right.’ His eyes flicker to mine. ‘I have no chance, if I get caught.’
The bathroom is a project in the making, and I am not sure if it still qualifies as a bathroom: there are various plants he dragged in, waiting to be planted scattered on the stone floor, and the bathtub is filled to the brim with compost.
‘Wow.’ I say, more shocked than impressed.
‘Trust me, it will be awesome. Alright, let me just grab the phone for you. One second.’ He disappears behind a door. Well… I suppose it could turn out cool. I have a look at the plants, and whilst I am trying to figure out what they are, I hear Pretzel’s growling.
‘What’s up boy?’ I turn to see his nose stuck in the compost in the bathtub.
We get the biggest lightning across the sky, instantly followed by thunder so loud the lightning could have been striking right next to us.
So loud I can’t hear myself scream as the lights go out.
I'm not sure if he could.
For a moment, there’s a deafening silence, and all I can hear is my own shallow breaths, Pretzel's sniffs and the rapid beating of my heart. I’m not sure what I’ve seen. I’m not sure if Pretzel just started pulling out a mouthful of long hair from under the soil. Now, I see nothing.
The next thing I hear is the distant cursing of the boy from another room.
‘Hang on!’ he shouts, and I take a look at my phone. The battery is on 1% and there’s still no reception. I try to send a text anyways, but the phone dies as I write it, just as he comes back with a lit candle in his hand. ‘Sorry… I don’t think you can use the phone after all. I think a tree probably fell on the power line, it happens a lot when we get a bad storm.’ He says apologetically, but his smile in the flickering of the candle light does not match his tone of voice and I see him glace at the disturbed tub. I dare not look down to see it.
‘You are welcome to stay until you can call help. I’ll get you some dry clothes and a cup of tea.’ he offers.
‘Do you take any milk or sugar?’
‘No, thank you… Sorry, what’s your name?’
He leads me through to the lounge and leaves me with fresh clothes and the weak candle light. Only once I am undressed I pick up what he has left for me, and I am sure he wants to make fun of me. It is an evening dress, a real showstopper piece, but I only feel uglier putting it on and I can’t even zip it up at the back. Ridiculous… Still, undoubtedly better than my soaking wet clothes.
Pretzel puts his head under my hand, and I don’t know if I am safer or more exposed to danger because of his presence. I shake my head. I don’t know what I saw, I remind myself. I need to stop imagining things.
‘It’s alright, boy.’ I stroke him.
‘Tea is ready.’ I’m startled by Dan’s voice, and as I see him standing in the doorway I wonder how long he has been there, watching from the shadows.
‘Here.’ He hands me the steaming cup, and as I take a sip, all I taste is sugar. I thank him anyway.
He watches me as I drink, his eyes catching the light of the flickering candle light in the dark room, as he sits perfectly still in the armchair opposite.
I can barely keep my eyes open, after I finished my tea.
‘Sleepy?’ he asks.
‘Exhausted.’ I murmur. He smirks, and leans over to take my cup, briefly making eye contact as he blows out the candle in front of my face.
I must have fallen asleep, and for a moment I am unsure of where I am when I come back to my senses. It’s still pitch dark.
‘Lola!’ he claps his hands in high spirits. ‘Finally, the lights are back on! Do you want to make the phone call?’
‘...What? Yes. Could you switch the lights on, please? I can’t see a thing?’
‘They’re on. Did you forget to open your eyes?’
‘Switch on the lights… I can’t see.’
'Oh. Hm. That would be a temporary side-effect. Don't worry too much.'
‘Side effects of what?!’
‘Of getting a cold? Your clothes are wet.’
‘...I'm in my clothes..?’ I run my hand down my leggings and soaking wet hoodie. The clothes I left on a chair.
'But I was in a dress?'
‘Erm… No. You weren’t.’
‘Where is my dog?’
‘My staffy, Pretzel. He was with me. He pulled something out of your compost in the bathtub…’
‘Why would I put compost in the bathtub?’ He acts amused and I can hear a smile in his voice. My throat dries up.
‘No reason, right?’ His voice is still all smiles and I am dizzy with confusion and fear.
‘No… No reason.’
‘Do you want to make a phone call?’
‘I’ll leave the phone here for you. I’m going out for a little while. It is the morning, you know. You really overslept.’
‘No, wait, I can’t see..!’
‘You are so noisy. Maybe, you need to get some more sleep. I’ll bring you some tea.’
For a moment I think it was all only a nightmare, when I feel the morning sun on my face and hear the chirping of birds. Then, I feel my damp clothes sticking to my skin and the smell of bleach tickling my nose. I swallow and open my eyes. At least, now I can see. And there’s the phone..! I jump to it, but the line still doesn’t work.
‘It’s useless.’ I hear the dramatic sigh of Dan and my blood freezes in my veins at the sight of him.
‘Good morning.’ He smiles.
‘M-morning.’ I croak.
‘Are you okay? I couldn’t call for help so I was worried sick ever since you fainted into the house.’ He says with the most innocent concern in his blue eyes.
‘Ri– right, that happened?’ I narrow my eyes and look out the window at the three parked cars on the driveway.
‘Are you the only one home?’
‘I’m the only one living here.’ The way he says this makes me spin around to look at him, and there is something unsettling in his expression. I can’t be imagining all this. I look at his hands.
‘How did you get those injuries?’
‘Gardening.’ he replies.
‘In the bathroom?’
‘What? No!’ He laughs. ‘Outside.’
‘Why would I lie about this? Come… have a look.’
We go to the bathroom and he opens the door to it to reveal a shiny, clean bathroom without any evidence of yesterday’s planting project. I open my mouth then close it without having anything to say. Did I go mad?
‘If you continue on this road outside, you’ll reach the village in twenty minutes’ walk. Maybe you would be able to get help from there?’ he suggests.
I stare at him blankly. He is helping. He lets me go..? Maybe I did get a cold. Maybe I got a fever. Maybe I saw him and fainted and Pretzel had run away. Maybe I am a fool. I swallow.
‘I’m sorry… I… I’ve been talking rubbish. Thank you, I’m going now!’ I turn right away and open the wrong door. A door that is not my exit to the sunshine after the storm, but the door that hides a pile of dirt and the plants and some things dead, some things that were human, something that was Pretzel. I can feel the blood drain from my face.
‘Oh, Lola… You were this close.’ he sighs.
I am a fool. I could see the bleach stains he could not make disappear. I shouldn’t have doubted my sanity. And mainly, I should not have opened this door. I don’t dare look behind me.
‘I can leave, right? You said… I can go home, right?’ my voice is breaking as I stare at my dog’s empty eyes. When I turn around, I see him casually pick up a vase, eyeing me up like a predator who can’t wait to start the chase.
‘Well, you might run me out or win in a fight.’ he smiles in encouragement, trying his grip on the vase’s neck, holding it like a baseball bat. ‘You’ll never know unless you try.’